Most of us know how to work some thinly shaved prosciutto onto a last-minute cheese plate, and we’ve all politely excused ourselves to go pluck a piece of salami rind out of our teeth at a networking event or housewarming party, but far too many of the other fruits of the cornucopia of cured Italian meats remain a mystery to even the most sophisticated of diners.
That waste of culinary potential ends today. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about Italian meats, but have been too scared to ask.
I’ll say this about soppressata – it’s far easier to eat than it is to spell. Layering complexity upon confusion, soppressata, itself a type of salami, actually comes in two very distinct forms. Soppressata di Basilicata is a pork-based cured sausage made using only fillet and thigh meat from pigs specifically bred to one day be slaughtered for soppressata preparation. Lard, salt and red pepper are combined with the meat to form a paste, which is then encased and aged for 5 months before being lightly smoked. The Basilicata variety is recognizable by the distinct white cubes of fat floating in the center of each slice.
Soppressata Toscana, on the other hand, is made by combining course chunks of ham, pork shoulder and tongue with an entire pantry full of ingredients ranging from nutmeg and cinnamon to lemon zest, orange peel and fresh rosemary. When sliced, the Toscana variety is less visually distinct, appearing more like a Magic Eye photo made up with various flecks of reds and maroons.
Try it with: Like the rest of our list, soppressata is delicious on its own, but also adds bold flavor and bright color when bits of the meat are added to pans of sautéing chicken or vegetables.
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If this salume – Italian for cold, cured meat – looks a bit like bologna to you, that’s because both meats trace their origins back to Bologna, Italy. Mortadella draws its name from the mortar and pestle used to break down and mix together the combination of heat-cured pork, myrtle berries, pistachios and at least 15% pork fat, usually taken from the neck of the pig. As interest in the popular sausage sprung up across Europe, Spanish and Portuguese chefs recreated the signature green pistachio flecks with what they had on hand in their own regional kitchens, giving rise to a green olive mortadella that has in some ways eclipsed the original.
Try it with: Mortadella is meat of the people, and pops up mainly in sandwiches. Try a riff on the popular fried mortadella sandwich at home by simply popping your own stacker into a panini press.
Likely the most well-known item on our list here, salami is the salume we’ve all tried at some point (even if we weren’t quite certain what it was that we were eating). Technically more of an umbrella term than any sort of specific food product, salamis can be made from a wide variety of ingredients, so long as they are either pork- or beef-based. An early success story of experimentation with food fermentation, European working class families flocked to the food because it required no specialized temperature control to produce or store. Salami, when sliced, has a marbled appearance, owing to the inclusion of ingredients like garlic cloves, herbs, red wine, and of course, bits of finely minced animal fat.
Try it with: The rich, salty tang of salami pairs excellently with eggs and pastas alike. A popular Italian pasta preparation pairs the sausage with sweet peas and a drizzle of olive oil.
You’re forgiven if all you knew about prosciutto up until today is that it’s super delicious and a bit too expensive to toss into the cart on every trip to the grocery store. When we discuss this salume, we’re usually talking about the thinly sliced prosciutto crudo (raw, cured prosciutto as opposed to cotto, the cooked variety that more closely resembles American ham). The most coveted variety is prosciutto di Parma, but other, similarly prepared varieties (like San Daniele) are starting to get much deserved love.
The meat – it’s not a sausage, like most of the others on this list – is made by aging and dehydrating the hind leg or thigh of a pig or wild boar. A complex schedule of salting, hanging, pressing and cleaning for 18 to 24 months ends with an intoxicatingly aromatic, lusciously pink, impossibly delicious product.
Try it on: Toss slices of prosciutto into a pot of linguini after you’ve added the sauce to your pasta, or stuff butterflied chicken breasts with the ham. Add generous slivers of delicate prosciutto to pizzas fresh out of the oven, or just go to town on a plate of cheese, crackers and the elegant meat. Wrap cantaloupes in the stuff, even! You can’t go wrong here.
Deep red-hued bresaola is made from curing, and then air drying salted legs of beef that first have taken a spice bath in cinnamon, juniper berries and nutmeg. After two to three months of aging, bresaola develops its trademark lean flavor, dark wine-like color and musty taste. In fact, bresaola frequently takes on such a ruddy hue that it is often confused for carpaccio, the raw, thinly sliced preparation of steak.
Although bresaola is relatively unique by way of it being made with beef, variations are also prepared using venison, pork and even horse. It’s always a good idea to ask the delicatessen staff which animal the house bresaola is made with before placing an order.
Try it with: Bresaola is a standard-bearer among antipasto plates at Italian restaurants the world over. Enjoy thin slices of the meat atop an arugula salad, drizzled with high quality olive oil and real balsamic vinegar.
Call it capicola. Call it coppa. Call it Corsican salume. Just make sure you call it, and tell it to make it over in time for supper. Similar to prosciutto and bresaola, capocollo is another whole-muscle aged and cured pork product, as opposed to the sausage-like preparations of salami and soppressata. Capocollo is one of the spicier entries on our list here, owing to the paprika rubdown each hunk of meat gets after six months of curing (though there is also a sweet variety). But don’t be too scared. The heat of that spice is offset by the white and red wines used to cure the meat. In this way, capocollo is casually referred to as the sister salume of the beef bresaola.
Try it with: When served as a cold cut, this meat is sliced quite a bit thicker than the rest of the meats on this list. The sturdy, slightly spicy meat pairs excellently with hard, sharp cheeses and dishes prominently featuring peppers.
This oblong, unusually shaped cut owes its appearance to the part of the pig used in its preparation: the cheek. The thin slivers of meat below a pig’s eye are cured for three weeks in a blend of sugar, salt, black pepper, thyme and fennel. During this period, 30% of the meat’s weight is lost as it dries, while the flavors present in the meat only become more concentrated.
Try it with: Guanciale makes a lovely substitution for bacon or pancetta in many recipes that call for either, replacing some of bacon’s trademark richness with a lighter, herbal quality.